Friday, August 26, 2011

Wrapping Up The Summer of Khan!

"Have you ever read Milton, Captain?"
--Khan to Kirk, "Space Seed".
(Warning: Very long blog post ahead)

There are so many reasons why I chose this summer to be Summer of Khan. I believe it started with acquiring a new book...That's how it usually happens any way.

In fact, that is how I shall choose to end The Summer of Khan.

One excruciatingly hot day in the sleepy little cold-call-sales capitol of the world (San Antonio) I picked up a copy of The Eugencis Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh. It took significantly longer than planned to finish the series, considering I had to wait two weeks for the third volume to arrive, then read it, and--unhappily--it took even longer to blog about it, as I sent the trilogy south for my co-worker and good friend to borrow, attached to an address for him to return them. My policy has always been to spread the nerd around.

The series ended in tragedy, as it happens. Not only did I already know how the story would end, the fact that Khan proved to be the megalomaniacal tyrant he was portrayed to be in Wrath of Khan did not exactly give me any hope for the future, nor did knowing that his entire race was doomed from the beginning. What did give me cause to hope was that Captain Kirk, despite whatever Khan might have believed, would have been unable to prevent the disaster on Ceti Alpha V even if he had known about it, which was an impossibility, since you can't see black holes. Allow me to explain.

To Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Sing

Stock photo
I have to admit being slightly disappointed that the story did not pick up en medias res, before the events of Wrath of Khan. I had hoped that Khan's potential as a character would not be colored by the events of the film, nor did the story benefit from being told in a sort of pseudo-epistolary (from journals and records kept by the individuals who's story it is). As such, a great deal of time is spent focusing on Kirk, Spock, and Bones getting trapped on Ceti Alpha V by the remaining genetic outcasts, and not just outcasts, the outcasts of the outcasts. The genetic offspring of several renegade colonists who felt that Khan had worn out his time as their leader had kidnapped Kirk and his men and demanded without mercy that they turn over Khan and the rest of his clan to them to be dealt with. First of all, their captor was about fifteen and hardly any match for Khan, even at a very haggard and weary forty years old (Ricardo Montalban was 61 when the film was made. I somehow doubt a shirt-tailed kid was going to take Khan at any age). Second, I don't know that any of this is important to the story other than to re-enforce the overall theme that genetic tampering with human beings has the potential to be more harmful than good.

The story is told from the third-person limited perspective of Marla McGivers and Khan Noonien Singh. I don't know why so many authors forego the very not-cliched first person for villains. Several amazing authors have proven already that the villain is the most convincing in his own voice (Brian Lumley, Anne Rice, Mary Anne Mitchell, Fred Saberhagen and Gregory McGuire to name a few). I would have paid way more than $20 for that book if Khan had told the story in his own voice. Of course, his private thoughts, were closer to the mark. Also, though I have expounded on the merits of McGiver's character before (See "All the Women that Went Before Part 2" in the July archives), I feel that if we are ultimately going to explore Khan's character in this novel, why we were given both perspectives? If the idea was to watch Khan slowly descend into madness, why was Marla so fundamental? Her character had been given very little attention before (sadly, I would say). She saved Khan, to be sure, but he was doomed anyway, and she died (no real spoiler, that), which only makes the tragedy of the story ten times worse. I can't get over the fact that, witnessed through Khan's eyes, that fact would have struck me as tearful and heart-rending, rather than half-assed (since Kirk was sitting on Marla's tomb reading about it) and transparent. Sorry, Greg Cox, but it made me mad.

Well, we know how the story ends, and Greg Cox does an amazing job of filling in the blanks of what transpired on the sands of Ceti Alpha V that drove Khan to ultimately destroy himself to avenge his people. I'm not saying I could have done it better, but I was very much disappointed with the novel. There were, however, some very distinctly tragic aspects, and causes for hope, that I want to expound upon.

The Demise of Ceti Alpha V

Unbeknownst to the captain of the starship Enterprise, the Ceti Alpha system had been  unstable for probably all of its lifetime. It was not until almost 20 years after Kirk had marooned Khan and his race of genetically enhanced humans on Ceti Alpha V, after the horrible events that had transpired, that a full-scale, or even a small-scale analysis of what happened to the planet could be conducted. Even then it was open to speculation. Spock reasoned--after his resurrection on the Genesis planet and rescue from the Klingons--that Ceti Alpha VI had not just exploded, as Khan had suggested, but rather was pulled apart by the gravitational shift caused by a black hole emerging in the system. If the black hole was large enough to consume the whole planet, it could very easily have caused the earthquakes, atomic winter, drought and death of every living thing on the planet that did not have the human capacity (not to mention several evolutionary jumps forward) of Khan and his cohorts to survive it. Of course, such a hypothesis comes on the coat-tails of slightly more scientific science-fiction in 2005, rather than the necessary but short explanation in 1982.

It makes little difference, however, how exactly the planet had devolved. By the time Kirk was discussing this with Spock, Khan had been dead a year, his atomic particles spread out over the Plutara Nebula where he had activated the Genesis device while trying to kill Kirk, subsequently resulting in Spock's tragic demise, resurrection and rebirth. What made my heart so heavy was that Kirk never got the chance to explain it to Khan, not that that was Kirk's fault (not all of it anyway).

Khan had always been hot-headed, self-serving and arrogant. He was vastly intelligent, an excellent leader and strategist, but he had his mother's maniacal thirst for vengeance, cultivated first by her death at hands of a desperate Gary Seven, then by Kirk's seemingly "childish" unwillingness to give up his ship and his crew to the service of the despot who had fled earth during the Eugenics wars, then simmered on the desert wasteland of Ceti Alpha V. None of this makes for a very reasonable person.

"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."

Even more tragic--though exciting to some scholars--is the fact that Khan identifies himself with Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost. The novel's title, To Reign in Hell is a dead give-away...well for me it was. Khan's character is a superior being expelled by inferior beings. However, no matter what his genetic make-up, Satan and Khan both felt that they were better than those they were brought up around, even if it wasn't true. Gary Seven, Roberta Williams, and James Kirk all proved themselves Khan's betters despite their "inferiority". Satan, though fancying himself God's equal in the epic poem that  nearly got Milton killed, was really no better than any of his kind. The angel Abdiel commented in book vi of the poem, during the insurrection, that Satan was misguided, for he could not hope to be higher than  his kind, even when God had personally placed him so high in his esteem (you will recall that Satan's name in Heaven was Lucifer, "The Light-Bearer", which seemed to be an important role). Khan repeatedly quotes Milton, especially Satan. The title of the novel is taken from a quote from Satan in book I of the poem, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." The quote has lead many to believe that Satan is in fact the hero of paradise lost, but I once had a professor that said, "Any critic that says Satan was the hero never got past book II." I have to agree. Neither Khan nor Satan are the heroes of their respective story. Khan and Satan's expulsions were the results of their own depraved actions. The school of thought that defines Satan as a hero is that Hell was essentially what you make of it. Satan and Khan both built palaces in their prisons (Pandamonium in Hell and New Chandigar on Ceti Alpha V). Both found ways to survive their exiles, but the fact that both characters created their prisons and then decorated it to make it nicer only solidifies the notion that they rule in delusion. Khan was no more in control of his prison than Satan was. Khan's fight for survival, though valiant and well-intended, really meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. The story would have carried more weight, if, like Paradise Lost, it had begun en medias res, with Khan waking up in his camp on Ceti Alpha V the way Satan woke up in Hell, flashing back to how they fell and when.

Tragedy followed Khan wherever he went. Khan is not the first, nor the last, neutrally bad or good character that has ever just needed a hug. Drizzt Do'Urden, Joey Garza (Streets of Laredo), Nephran Malinari (Necroscope, though being sexy had something to do with that), Radu Vladislas and Saberhagen's Dracula are several I can name off the top of my head that I might have said to them, "Awww, what you really need is a hug...if you could just put down that sword/knife/gun/gauntlet..." Marla tried to protect his sanity, and even succeeded for a time, but by the time we meet Khan in WoK, he is beyond help, and though attempts were made to reason with him (poor Chekov), I do not feel that every possible attempt to restrain and reason with Khan was made. Kirk told lies and deceived Khan even when it wasn't necessary. People feared Khan, and rightly so, but that fear and mutual hatred only fueled an even greater blindness to Khan's very much justified anger. Kirk was ultimately responsible for keeping tabs on Khan. Kirk failed. In the novel, Kirk even admits it. Good. Carry that with you for the rest of your life. Absolving Kirk of that failure would only cheapen Khan's anger, which Cox is careful not to do.

Hope in a Sea of Despair

What gave me further cause for hope was the fact that the colonists of Ceti Alpha V were able to produce children, though those children were the products of genetic tampering. Each and everyone of the children produced, no matter the genetic nationality of the parents, were blond-haired and blue-eyed, a fact that did not fail to impress itself on Khan and his historian wife, Marla McGivers. It did not surprise them that what was meant to be a superior race of humans had become essentially "Aryan". As part of the sub-plot of the second Eugenics Wars novel, the children, after Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are stranded on Ceti Alpha V are convinced of Khan's death--through more deceit--and return with the curtailed crew of Enterprise to the colony of genetically enhanced humans on the planet Sycorax, which has just been denied admittance into the Federation. There, the universe could go on blissfully unaware of Kirk's mistake (to put it bluntly), and the colonist children would be monitored and raised by others who understood them. A happy ending, the fact that Kirk gets to forget, yet again, that he might have prevented all of it had he not been so hot-headed and arrogant himself twenty years past.

Wrapping it Up

Though I have harsh criticism, I nevertheless enjoyed the final chapter in Khan's life. There was, as was the case with the other two novels, a sense of enlightenment and, after the events of WoK, a sense of closure. Marla McGivers Singh's ashes were scattered in the wake of the Genesis planet, finally laid to rest with her husband. Now that got me choked up. If Kirk did one good thing in all of this, it was admit that two people had come together in all of this and that their union was stronger than any Kirk had known. The end of the novel was bittersweet: Khan's reign of terror was dead, but he was at peace--at least we hope so. Spock, though lost to Khan's wrath briefly, had been restored. Khan's followers and their children had been placed under careful diligence. All was right with the universe, and though there were wrongs committed on both sides that could never be taken back, at least they had been accounted for and reckoned with. Khan and Kirk were even, at least on the score of what had been lost (as you will recall, Khan died creating the Genesis planet, which in turn claimed Kirk's son David on a Klingon blade). Over all, I feel like my summer was complete having read these novels, and though the events Khan and Kirk set in motion had ended, the book I just bought brings the past back into clear focus as Captain Picard must deal with the aftermath in Star Trek The Next Generation: Genesis Wave.

Franchises that never die...for the win.

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